Can you help with my 8yo daughter's mood swings?
March 8, 2016 12:20 AM   Subscribe

Pre-teen land is a shocking new landscape for my daughter and I. It's like a switch is being flipped throughout the day and I never know if I'm going to get the angry, frustrated and low-self esteem version of my kid, or my typical bright sunny girl who is outgoing and fierce. What has been helpful to you in navigating this time for pre-teens in general and girls in particular?

My 8-year old daughter is a strong, intense and energetic child. She's a strong personality and presence, and is 100% in whatever she is feeling. She's an extrovert but is also a highly sensitive person (if you acknowledge HSP as a 'thing') and is quite mature in understanding emotions when she is calm and in her zone. However, when things go badly, all hell breaks loose and she exhibits frustration and anger, "everyone hates me," "I'm nobody," "I'm a failure," and other heartbreaking outbursts along those lines. She just doesn't have the coping skills or maturity to handle her big feelings. In talking with her I am learning that this developmental stage has a lot to do with understanding one's place in the world, which for her means comparing herself to her peers, and in doing that she sees herself coming up short. She just told me that because she doesn't get 100% on her math tests that she is terrible at math and must have a small brain. We are not hard on her about grades at all (in 2nd grade, it's not even really discussed yet) so I think this is coming from her own perfectionist tendencies, as she's doing pretty well in school overall. In soccer she used to be an animal on the field, very focused and aggressive, but now she is more reserved and will tell me that the rest of her team is better than she is. She will be lovely and sweet one moment, then when asked to start her homework she throws herself on the ground and cries and argues for 10 minutes or so; eventually the work gets done but it is so painful getting to that point. We have been working with her teacher and a GI doc on this school-related anxiety (she had reflux at the beginning of the year), use the "When My Worries Get Too Big" anxiety workbook, and will start a "Little Worriers" anxiety support group for young children soon. Do you have any insight or suggestions as to (a) if this is somewhat normal developmentally/hormone-wise for a pre-teen, and (b) what has helped your child who has had similar fluctuations with mood? I hate seeing her struggle with these new, heavy feelings and ideas and I don't really know what can be of help as I also struggled with low self esteem as a kid (and still do to). I'm interested in parenting advice, techniques, activities, books, anything that can help any of us. Thank you for your help.
posted by sealee to Human Relations (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Diet: Reduce her sugar intake and get more fat in her diet, particularly medium chain triglyceride such as in coconut oil.

Praise: catch yourself when you praise her innate abilities (you're so smart, you're a natural etc) and stop doing it. Start praising effort. When she has a melt-down about homework but finally does it, praise her for working through her feelings and doing the hard work. Don't say things like "it wasn't so bad, was it?" because it was bad, at least to her. Praise her for effort and process but not for smarts or abilities. "Wow, Serena, you did really well getting through a tough day today. Tomorrow might be tough too. But working through tough stuff is how we get better at it and you did a great job getting through today! I believe in you, darling." Check that no-one else in the household is saying things like: "I'm so stupid" when they do something they didn't mean to do. Check for perfectionism in the adult caregivers' behaviour. That kind of stuff can really impact on a sensitive child and make them think that if they are not 100%, they are nothing. Good luck. It is wonderful that you care.
posted by Thella at 1:00 AM on March 8, 2016 [22 favorites]

Best answer: I've got nothing. But our nine year old does this when there's change in tempo or activity.

Thanks to this post, when I was taking some deep breaths and about to walk out in to the night air to get some head space, you prompted me to go back in and kiss her and her sister and remind them that I love them no matter what. And that though they drive me mad, I know I also drive them mad too.

Sometimes all I can do is let my big girl rage, then reassure her of my unconditional love.

Will watch this thread with hope.
(Thank you for your inspiration tonight, on International Women's Day. Was feeling a bit shite about my parenting. Glad I'm not the only one struggling some days.)
posted by taff at 1:30 AM on March 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Is there somebody in her life that is undermining her, such as a highly critical teacher or coach, or a fellow student? Is she in an environment where pressure is being placed on her to Succeed At All Costs? It doesn't have to be anything to do with you - it could be her school or her sports team or some other circumstance. It could also not really be directed at her specifically, but she senses the pressure and doesn't want to be left behind or punished.

The pressure to be high-achieving genius types is so high right now - even if you as the parents aren't doing anything to force it, she could be surrounded by talk about high achievers and Failure Is Not An Option and how if you don't score high enough you'll fail forever. This was pervasive during my 11 years of school and it starts super early, so even before you're old enough for one of the Big Government Exams you're already forced to think about grades or other metrics as a representation of life success.
posted by divabat at 2:16 AM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thelia is talking about Carol Dweck's work on fixed vs growth mindset, I think. She has a book, a TED talk, and here's a brief article talking about growth mindset.

It's good stuff, and it's important, but it's not a magic bullet. I started drinking the koolaid when my oldest was about 4, and she's now 10 and still has many of the traits you mention in your post. She has just always been like that. (And I was as a kid, too. Decades later and much work to find my zen, I'm better but not all the way there. Nature, or nurture?) But we still doggedly ignore report cards, praise specific effort, talk about hard work, remind her of when hard work has paid off in the past. And her most recent report card was filled with "she sometimes struggles with more complex problems in math class, but she works hard and develops strategies to solve them" and that made me happier than anything else. (Most of the time I just tell her "I don't care about report cards. Your teacher will tell me anything I need to know at conferences or in an email.")
posted by instamatic at 3:23 AM on March 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

Is there anyone in the family that is good at math who can help her calm down and work through her anxieties about math by helping her understand it better in bite-size pieces? So many children, myself included, struggled with math to the point of having temper tantrums. There seems to be a block in many people's brains regarding math, and yet teenagers are expected to learn algebra and calculus -- subjects I as a parent have a hard time justifying to my kids because, unless they want to become engineers or whatever, they don't need a bit of algebra or calculus other than the basics. This resistance to math continues right on through high school. And can continue to the point where my own, and kids of my friends, opt to go to community colleges just to get out of taking the math section of the SAT exam, and from there continue on to place at an advanced university.

It is important, I think, to help her understand that some kids are hardwired for math and others are not -- and that those who aren't have to work harder to comprehend it, but that this has absolutely nothing to do with innate intelligence.
posted by zagyzebra at 4:34 AM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I also second reducing sugar in the diet. One thing is to absolutely knock cereal out of the breakfast picture, and instead substitute a quick french omelette with a side of buttered whole grain toast to up the protein intake before they head off to school.
posted by zagyzebra at 4:38 AM on March 8, 2016

More exercise and learning to serve others. Have her help out an elderly relative once a week (for no pay) or volunteer somewhere. You can't be focused on yourself when you are helping others. While it is good to acknowledge feelings and stuff, it is also good to encourage children to get over themselves and do something for someone else. I will actually say that sometimes, when my tween is having a moment, "Get over yourself and take out the trash." As with any unwanted behavior, don't encourage it with too much attention. If she throws a tantrum before doing her homework, then leave the room. I've done this before. My girls know that if they don't do their homework, then they have to deal with their teachers. It's not on me. I do insist that they do their homework before supper because after, they are just too sleepy. I also insist that both of my girls have 8:30 bedtimes (ages 9 & 12), because we are up before daylight and they need their sleep. Having them well rested helps so much.
posted by myselfasme at 5:21 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with Thelia and Instamatic, it is only recently I came across Carol Dweck's work on the Growth Mindset and it is extremely helpful. Lately I have been having a tough time with my 10yo son who seems to be driving me up a wall on the daily. Also take a look at Diana Baumrind's Parenting styles as it is useful to know what impact your approach is having on her and what changes you can make to foster positive outcomes for all.
posted by Whatifyoufly at 6:09 AM on March 8, 2016

So for what it's worth, what zagyzebra is talking about is precisely the opposite of growth mindset, which is very much NOT about "some people are good at math and some are not," as opposed to "math is a skill and you can learn it, most people are not 'naturally' good at it." As a textbook former type A perfectionist who wishes Carol Dweck was around in the seventies, I feel pretty strongly that that mindset is especially bad for elementary and teen girls, who get plenty of that viewpoint from everyone else in the world.
posted by instamatic at 6:32 AM on March 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think everybody in my family has perfectionist tendencies in one way or another, so I sympathize.

I don't think there's any magic bullet, but one thing we do is to try and emphasize the value of practice/sticking with things in relaxed moments when we're talking about other people, since that makes everything less fraught. So, for example, if my kid shows me a video of some soccer player making an amazing save, I'll say, "WOW! Incredible! He must have been practicing for YEARS to be able to do that."

If you want two specific videos to start this conversation, you might check out Guy Learns To Dance In A Year and Girl Learns To Dance In A Year. Unfortunately (for didactic purposes) both videos skip past the awkward early days pretty quickly, but even so, they are both MUCH better at the end then they were when they started.
posted by yankeefog at 6:47 AM on March 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, I'll nth Carol Dweck's discussions of praising effort versus supposedly innate ability. (I say supposedly because I think the contribution of innate abilities is often overblown.)

As someone who naturally tended to excel at school and specific extracurriculars, I definitely fell into the mindset of fixed abilities. I felt like, if I wasn't automatically the best at something, why bother because clearly I just wasn't as good as other people. I almost saw working hard as being a negative. (Needless to say this was very counterproductive.)

In addition to praising effort over abilities, maybe it would help to get her involved in a less competitive activity; ideally one in which she's not naturally at ease but still could be something enjoyable. The only time growing up that i really broke out of the perfectionistic tendencies (and competitiveness, I was so, so competitive) was when I was doing the one activity I really loved. I was good at that too, but that really didn't matter. I just loved doing it.

I actually think trying and failing at something can be really helpful for people like me and your daughter (and many mefites). For high strung perfectionists, failure can seem like this huge, overwhelming, life ruining thing, in large part because we're not used to failing. I think trying and failing is really the best way to learn that failing at something isn't the end of the world, and also to see that there's value in giving something your all even if you won't be the best at it.
posted by litera scripta manet at 10:05 PM on March 8, 2016

Older resource, but possibly check out the book Reviving Ophelia.
posted by eviemath at 4:39 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My daughter is eight, adopted from foster care with a history of trauma. Something that has really worked for her is to teach her about the brain. For example, when she was really young I taught get about adrenaline. I told her what it is, why we get flooded with it and how to ride it out. I asked her once, as an example, if she cared i f I went next door to talk to the neighbor for a second while she stayed home and she said, "That gives me adrenaline."

She knows about cortisol and dopamine and serotonin. I also taught her as many words as I could to help her label her internal experiences. The ones she uses the most are ambivalent, stressed and vulnerable.

She knows that hormones can hijack your brain and make you believe things that aren't true, etc. My daughter knows that adrenaline makes your heart pump to get you ready to act so she's learned to put her hand on her heart and breathe to slow if down.

I also try to name what I see without judgment as early in the process as possible (it looks like you're starting to get angry, do you know why?) and I never try to talk her out of her feelings or provide her with logical reasons they aren't accurate while she is upset.

When shes not upset I will ask her questions. Like with your daughter I would ask her, "When you're upset you say that if you're not perfect in math you're stupid. What do you think that's about?" I have told her that part of anything valuable is making mistakes along the way and ask her what we can do to make it more tolerable for her.

If I was dealing with the peer group issues I would probably do research on group dynamics. I would teach her about conformity and identity. I try to educate my daughter about what she is experiencing and for her it really makes a big difference.

Another thing I would be aware of is your own responsese. She will feel your worry and any catastrophizing. I woulld also suggest four or five sessions as a family with a good therapist.

And the last thing is to keep in mind that depression in children and teens often manifests as anger, so you want to make sure something isnt up in that area.

Feel free to contact me if any of this resonates and you want to hear more.
posted by orsonet at 5:44 AM on March 9, 2016 [8 favorites]

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